PITTSBURGH -- James McDonald has entered uncharted territory as far as his workload is concerned. But the scene that played out in front of 19,071 at PNC Park on Sunday was hardly unfamiliar.
The middle innings have all too often given McDonald fits, and such was the case again in the Marlins' 4-1 victory over the Pirates. With the win, Florida finishes the season 6-0 against Pittsburgh.
In the past, some of McDonald's middle-inning troubles have been due to fatigue. Other times, it has been familiarity -- a batting order getting its third crack -- that has doomed him. On Sunday, though, the issue was clearly tempo.
"I lost my rhythm a little bit," McDonald said, speaking specifically of the fifth inning. "The big thing is, I wasn't attacking hitters. I wasn't aggressive."
The time between McDonald's pitches lengthened as the game progressed. His focus waned. At one point, his motion to the plate was so slow that opposing starter Javier Vazquez took off from first and was more than halfway to second base by the time McDonald released the pitch.
"We've just got to get rid of that mind-set," manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's just the next pitch. I do think that sometimes they get in front of themselves. They are looking at a big picture, and they lose sight of pitching in the moment."
The game was scoreless heading into the fifth, though McDonald had pitched out of jams in each of the previous two innings. He walked Vazquez to begin the fifth before rebounding to get two quick outs.
Each of the next four hitters reached, though, chasing McDonald.
Greg Dobbs drove home Vazquez with a double. Gaby Sanchez's RBI single followed. After McDonald walked Bryan Petersen, Donnie Murphy drove home two runners with a double, giving the Marlins a four-run lead.
The rhythm issues that were so noticeable to observers weren't as much so to McDonald in the moment. That, he acknowledged, must change.
"A lot of the time, you won't sense it that much until you sit down and you refresh the inning," McDonald said. "That's the one thing that I [need to] learn -- once I feel that, to be able to step back and say, 'OK, let's get my rhythm back.'"
No inning has been more troublesome for McDonald this season than the fifth. In 29 starts, the right-hander has allowed 17 fifth-inning runs. That is at least three more than he has allowed in any other frame. Sunday marked the seventh time this season that McDonald has been unable to finish at least five innings.
While fatigue was not cited as an issue on Sunday, McDonald's workload will continue to be closely monitored. He has already logged a career-high 163 innings, after tossing only 71 2/3 at this level last year.
He threw 84 more pitches on Sunday.
"You don't want to shut him down while he's still strong, but you do want to shut him down while he's still strong, if necessary," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We're still working through that with all of our guys: What is the appropriate pitch count?"
After McDonald's exit, the Marlins did not record a hit in the 4 1/3 innings covered by the Pirates' bullpen.
A day after being one-hit by Anibal Sanchez, the Pirates did little better against Marlins starter Javier Vazquez. Pittsburgh collected just three singles off Vazquez in his six-inning start, advancing a runner into scoring position only once.
In the second, two walks and a single loaded the bases with two outs for McDonald, who struck out swinging. That was one of seven strikeouts recorded by Vazquez. He didn't issue another walk.
"At the end of the day, he got back in a rhythm, and he got back in the strike zone," Hurdle said. "We were having trouble finding the barrel."
Vazquez has won three consecutive starts and pitched at least six innings in each of his past nine outings.
"I'm staying aggressive, and I'm throwing a lot of strikes and pounding the strike zone," Vazquez said. "I made some adjustments in early June and late May, and it's working."
The Pirates snapped a string of 16 consecutive scoreless innings with a run off reliever Clay Hensley in the seventh, when Jason Jaramillo drove home Josh Harrison with a two-out single. The hit was one of two for Jaramillo, who entered as a pinch-hitter in the fifth and remained in the game after Ryan Doumit left due to an injury.
Doumit was struck in the chest by a fourth-inning pitch that crossed him up. Setting up low to catch a breaking pitch, Doumit couldn't react quickly enough when McDonald instead delivered a fastball. Doumit caught only one more inning before being removed.
Doumit left PNC Park before the game ended.
The Pirates' offense was quiet over the final two innings. In its past 14 games, Pittsburgh has plated more than four runs just twice. The team was held to one or no runs four times over that same span.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.